Sir Patrick Spens Questions and Answers

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How is the ballad "Sir Patrick Spens" a ballad? Make sure you explain why this is a ballad.

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What is a ballad? There are many identifying factors that you can use when attempting to discern whether a piece of poetry is a ballad or not. One of the most telling clues that a written piece is a ballad is that it has a strong structure and rhythmic quality. This is because ballads are meant to mimic a spoken narrative. One can simply imagine sitting there and listening to a storyteller relay the ballad. A ballad also tells a story, and does so in fairly simple language, unlike other poems that you may find in literature which challenge the reader with narrative complexities.

One final clue that you can use to determine whether a written piece is a ballad is whether it is written in stanza form. A stanza is a group of lines that repeats within the piece; typically, a stanza in a ballad has a rhyme that follows either an abcb or an abab pattern. Note that the most important detail is that the second and fourth lines of the stanza rhyme.

All of these details can be found in "Sir Patrick Spens," a popular traditional ballad with origins in Scotland. Using simple but direct language, "Sir Patrick Spens" relates the story of a sailor called out to sea, only to receive omens of ill fortune such as the rising new moon that ultimately lead to the sinking of his ship. As for the stanza form, let's take a look at the first stanza of the ballad.

The king sits in Dunfermline toune
drinking the blude reid wine,
"O whar can I get skeely skipper,
To sail this ship o' mine?"

Note that the second and fourth verse of this stanza rhyme. This stanza is written in abcb form.

With all of these clues put together, it is easy to deduce that "Sir Patrick Spens" is in fact a ballad, and one that for the most part follows all the traditional rules of what a ballad is meant to be.

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sfwriter eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I have written a response on "Sir Patrick Spens" which summarizes the poem and also discusses the ballad form.  Click on the link below to read the answer.  The last paragraph focuses on the poetic form.

Ballads almost always tell a folk-tale (or sometimes fairy-tale or supernatural story) -type story, which often (but not always) is tragic.  In the majority of cases ballads were meant to be sung, so there is a definitely regular, rhythmic, song-like quality to them.  Also, most ballads have repeated lines, usually at the ends of stanzas.  "Sir Patrick Spens" has all of these features.

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